CHARACTER OR CIRCUMSTANCE
Edward Zwick’s film “Defiance”, an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book of the same name, is reviewed by Timothy Snyder in ‘The New York Review of Books’ (April 30, 3009, pp.17-8; subscription required).
Both book and film relate the story of the Bielski brothers, dwelling in Belarus during the Nazi invasion of Russia. They took to the almost impenetrable forests and set up a movable camp where for two years they sheltered as many Jewish folk as could make their way there, hundreds of men, women and children. In the process, Mother Theresa not being available, they drew upon the skills of their native town’s assorted smugglers, pickpockets, thieves, con-artists, and pretty much the entire panoplium of such foibled skills as any human community would provide.
He raises a couple of very useful points.
First, there are reservations about the film in both America and Poland, and the reservations themselves speak volumes.
The Americans seem upset that there are no Nazis onscreen. No ‘Major Strasser’ who did so much to help focus the Grrrr in ‘Casablanca’. This perhaps reflects the fact that, barring an evil Other, Americans are hard-pressed to pull themselves away from their own daily round. It gets me to thinking that there is a strategic purpose in so many Advocacies in the past decades raising up the specter of this or that ‘evil class’ to ensure the support for, or at least acquiescence in, whatever plan they can talk the pols into to ‘solve’ the ‘crisis’. Of course, in any one country you can only use that ploy just so many times … but it’s uncertain whether that tipping-point has been reached yet. For apparent lack of any other useful diversions, the pols still seem willing to go along.
It also indicates that Americans like to think of the past in terms that not only flatter them but reassure them that ‘evil’ has been eradicated. We did, after all, beat the Nazis – and ran a whole series of trials on their butts as well. Adolf and his bhoys (and female SS camp guards) will never eat lunch in this town again. We hung out the washing on the Siegfried line and hung Siegfried out there as well.
Ah, those were the happy times.
The Poles, on the other hand, are miffed that there are no Russian baddies. What Americans don’t like to recall is that Poland (like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other unhappily-located countries) really didn’t benefit from the eradication of the Nazis. They were ‘liberated’ by Stalin’s Red Army, which is as clear a case of ‘from the frying pan into the fire’ as History is ever likely to provide.
And neither Hungary (1956) nor Czechoslovakia (1968) got much help from the West. If you haven’t caught the PBS documentary miniseries “World War Two Behind Closed Doors”, do so.
Though the Free Poles fought ferociously for the Brits – especially in the muddy, bloody, weather-battered campaign to take Monte Cassino in order to advance up the boot to Rome and beyond – they found that Churchill, bowing to military realities, allowed Stalin pretty much to have his way with Poland after the war. Indeed, when Britain held its victory parade in London right after the war – inviting contingents from all the various nations that had fought in the Allied effort against Nazi Germany, the Poles … were not invited. The presence of ‘free’ Poles would have upset Marshal Stalin. The Poles don’t think much of Churchill.
But then, the Soviet Union sustained well over half of the casualties in the war against the Nazis (the US suffered 2 percent). And who here wants to think of that? Twenty million military casualties alone, the Red Army sustained. And We like to think that We are serious about things?
There are battle scenes that are largely fictional. The entire operational goal of the Bielskis would have been to survive, not to expose themselves to ‘battles’ with German forces. (Look what happened to the French Forces of the Interior when they prematurely rose and engaged the Germans in open battle, before the Allied forces had advanced far enough from the Normandy beach-heads to support them.)
The Bielskis developed an alternative to the deadly and false binary: do you turn the other cheek or do you fight? They deployed all their energies and resources in the service of saving and ‘keeping safe’ as many as possible. This should provide food for thought in these troubled times when that binary has been raised up, most frequently by those who have already committed themselves to ‘fighting’, preventively, aggressively, and eternally.
There isn’t any reference to the alleged cooperation of the Bielski group with the NKVD. But this is a reality that Americans simply cannot digest easily: there were no long-term good choices for anybody in Central Europe in World War Two. There were the Germans with their Nazi philosophy directing their brutality – and that only got more feral as they started losing big-time. And the only military force capable of getting rid of them was … the Red Army of Stalin’s USSR. So you made a deal with the vampire to get rid of the werewolf that already had its paws around your throat. Then what? Best not to think, just to hope - just keep on without hope.
The amazing thing was that anybody in that part of the world carried on against the Germans at all, knowing that as soon as the Germans were defeated, the Soviets would flood into the vacuum thus created. It was a more numbing reality than that acutely enough limned in the Korean saying Kono itta, san itta – beyond the mountains … there are mountains. It’s more the sense that if you finally do manage to claw your way up to the deck and off the sinking ship, you will have to jump into a vast ocean, filled in your immediate vicinity with many, many very competent sharks.
It is some testimony about the human being that any activity was carried on at all, back in that time and place.
This is a complexity the American mind and heart have never been able to compass. And even less so now, given the impatient, entitled, cartoonishly simplistic attitude that far too many Americans consider to be their A-game.
Snyder notes that the reviewer A.O. Scott, in ‘The New York Times’, was miffed because “the film affirms an anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish passivity by suggesting that more Jews would have survived had they embodied the Bielskis’ manly virtues”.
The point of contention is whether character or circumstance count more.
It’s an illuminating way to pose the question, but ultimately insufficient as it stands. The Bielskis had the forests of Belarus, looming, primeval things that make the woods in Central Park or even the depths of all but the deepest Alaskan forests seem like untended gardens. Tolkien’s Fangorn would be a vivid depiction of the tree-lands of Belarus.
They had them and they knew how to carry on in them – something that the Germans did not know how to do. We forget how disorienting the Russian vastness was for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht: coming from the small and well-tended lands in the West of Europe, they had never seen such vast and endless plains, let alone forests, stretching ahead and behind, from horizon to horizon, day after day. And that was in summertime; when the whole place was sheathed in snow and ice, it became an otherworldly hell for them. Even without the Red Army. And the partisans.
And living that close to Muscovy, the Bielskis knew the abyssal depths of terror and mindless violence that could be unleashed into the world. Centuries of experience had seared that lesson into the collective memory and the culture of Belarus.
And the Bielskis were – if not peasants – certainly residents of a non-urban environment. They knew the rhythms of life and death from daily experience with farm animals and few hospitals available to mitigate the accidents of life. They knew how to live in the wild. It was their element. But that also meant that they knew they didn’t ‘own’ or ‘control’ that element; they could, at best, work with its rhythms as best they could manage; that required humility, patience and resilience (skills or virtues which are no longer in large supply in the (over)-developed West).
The Jewish inhabitants of Western and even Central Europe had no such skills. They had developed complex and well-defined societies in the cities and the towns; they had participated in the remarkable flowering of civilization that was ‘Europe’ at its height, much of which had survived the admittedly stunning awfulness of World War One. They were truly active members of that bourgeois world (and I use that phrase in its best possible sense).
And the Nazis were used to that world. Hitler was used to it. He used its every weakness and characteristic to climb to absolute power (which, We recall, he did legally, through elections). When the Jewish inhabitants of that world saw it start to turn on them, it was being directed by a calculating mind that knew that world inside-out, and planned every move, blocked every exit, stifled every opportunity. There was no way those Jewish folk were going to be able to resist: Hitler had foreseen it, knew their world as well as they did, and had already spent a great deal of time calculating how to block all its exits and potential hiding places.
Nor could any civilized mind ever have imagined that – war or no war – any European government would ever have contemplated the utter extermination of an entire people. Yes, the Russians had gone after ‘classes’, especially aristocrats. But look at Mussolini: since 1922 the Fascists had run Italy – when he first became Chancellor, Hitler had even gone hat in hand to visit the great Duce in Rome – and the Fascists had not made it unusually difficult for anybody, so long as you didn’t get in their way. So nu?
I can’t see how any significant force of Jewish ‘resistance fighters’ could have developed in Germany or any of the ‘developed’ areas of Europe, let alone have survived for more than a brief moment. By the time the Reich’s intentions became clear, it had already sealed the exits and bolted all the holes. I can’t see, frankly, how even ‘John Wayne’ or even a bunch with the skills of – to use a contemporary example – Navy Seals or Special Forces, hobbled by registration and identification as were the Jewish people of Western Europe, could have lasted very long as ‘resistance fighters’.
We forget how thorough the Nazis were in their preparations and in their control. The Jewish communities would have had to divine the Reich’s plans by the mid-‘30s at the latest, and then stockpile secret caches of arms and supplies, keep all of that secret, and then start to conduct operations when things became unavoidably clear. But supplies stockpiled for how many? The entire Jewish population? Just the hypothetical fighters? How assemble them? Where? In the cities and towns? In the woods? In the mountains? Secretly?
On the chessboard, Hitler had made all the essential moves and positioned his own pieces before the Jewish communities even knew that his awful game had begun.
Snyder rightly notes that “we still know very little about Jewish resistance and self-rescue”. Surely, there was some, and any successes – effected by Jewish folk themselves – would have been marvels of courage, ingenuity, and sober daring. And upon them all be peace.
But it is as misguided to take umbrage over the possible answer to an insufficiently well-posed question as it is profoundly careless to imagine a low-resolution cartoon history of the truly schrecklich and chiaroscuro complexity of the Nazi era, as it stretched over Western, Central and Eastern Europe through the course of a dozen highly eventful years, snuffing out but also igniting all manner of life and dignity and courage.
And while We’re at it, let Us take increased devotion to the cause of maturely and soberly grasping the vital complexities of Our own era, here and abroad, the better to shape a course of events that will create circumstances that nurture character. Which is what genuine civilization is all about.
And while We’re on the subject of civilization and the Bielskis’ remarkable embodiment of the good that dwells in the human spirit, let Us note that they made very effective use of very real, very human, and thus imperfect people. There were a lot of ‘fallen’ and possibly unsavory folks whom they enlisted for their skills and strengths. We here are a little too used to the cartoonish vision of ‘good’ people doing ‘good’ things, and ‘baaad’ people doing ‘bad’ things, and never the twain shall mix.
Things are rarely that simple in real life. That’s why cartoons are so seductive – and cartoonish thinking.
The old Westerns used to employ that stock character, the whore – you should pardon the expression – with a heart of gold. Back in those benighted pre-Sixties’ days, a person with such characterological drawbacks would have been the most vivid example of the uncomfortable misch of good and bad that dwells within all human beings. Perhaps in their resolute band the Bielskis or other leaders like them enrolled the skills of some who nowadays would be eligible, say, for a sex-offender registry or some such. If so, such individuals yet ‘did their bit’, brought their skills and made their contribution.
A cartoonish mentality might have simply ruled them out. But there were no such ‘registries’ back then – except for the ones maintained by the Gestapo and the NKVD.
The Nazis are gone, and now the Soviets as well. But cartoonery – if I may – remains alive and well.
And as We saw in the 20th century, cartoonery can fuel awful things.
We are going to need all the services We can get, from all the citizens We can muster, to face the challenges ahead of Us now.